More on Breath

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In my last post I considered one specific way that James Nestor’s book Breath has got me rethinking how I train singers (and indeed, how I sing myself), today I will romp through a number of his other points that suggest our craft’s claim to healthfulness is more well-founded.

  1. Exhale. Many of us, Nestor contends, spend much of our lives breathing in shallowly on top of air that we’ve not fully exhaled. Emptying the lungs thoroughly between breaths gives us better gas exchange in the lungs (and thus better blood chemistry and thence better-functioning organs).

    Anyone I have directed, and many I have coached will know that I recommend people exhale completely before taking their first breath to sing. As a conductor I exhale too, and so can feel the natural timing for the coordinated intake to start singing. I observe that people who empty their lungs prior to singing take more deep-set, relaxed breaths and thus produce a more resonant tone. They also find it easier to sing complete phrases.

    I also note that how Sally McLean recommends singing to the end of the breath at the end of a phrase, which likewise makes the rebound breath between phrases deeper, more relaxed, and more integrated into the song’s narrative. (My chorus refers to these as ‘Sally breaths’.)

  2. Slow down. Likewise, many of us spend our lives breathing too quickly; slowing down also does good things to our blood chemistry. The ideal breath, Nestor suggests is around 5.5 seconds in and 5.5 seconds out.

    Singing, obviously, tends to take less than 5.5 seconds to inhale, unless you have an accompaniment to fill in the gaps. (Flirts briefly with visions of antiphonal writing around this timing structure.) But on the flip side, we often sing phrases that last longer than 5.5. seconds, so the total elapsed to breathe in and out is significantly slower than regular breathing. Apart from its musical and communicative purposes, singing is certainly a structured way to regulate the breath.

  3. Don’t over-fill. This is a mantra of singing technique that has changed since my youth. Time was, breathing for singing was couched in terms of ‘support’ that involved a large cushion of air. We tend not to talk about ‘tanking up’ any more, in recognition that over-filling produces unhelpful tension, plus the problem of ending a phrase with still too much air on board.

    Apparently, over-filling is counter-productive for health purposes too. We need CO2 as well as oxygen in our blood for respiration to work effectively, and upsetting this balance for more than temporary exigencies (of the fight or flight variety) does us more harm than good.

  4. Posture. It turns out that good alignment helps us breathe better; it’s not just about having the larynx hang freely so it resonates well.

So, assuming I have managed to tease out the substantive points from the pseudoscience,* there are a number of ways in which the way singing changes our breathing make it a healthy activity. Which we knew anyway: anecdotal accounts of singing-induced wellbeing are a valid form of evidence.

But it helps to be aware of the specific dimensions of breathing that are helpful beyond their role in making music. And, more importantly, I’m going to be interested to see what kind of impact the point discussed in my previous post about nasal breathing has on my praxis.

*There’s at least one point other that I’m pretty sure is neurobollocks, and another that I’m going to have to do some more reading up on before I decide to believe it.

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